It’s a bit extraordinary to see a pudgy, short female impersonator as the symbol of the new vigor of Canadian movies. But what you see is what you get. Craig Russell is the star, the energizing inspiration, of Outrageous, a low-budget Canadian film which has already wooed audiences at Cannes and won them in New York before even beginning the assault on its own country. It is one of a happy handful of recent Canadian films—also including Why Shoot The Teacher, Who Has Seen The Wind and, to a slightly lesser degree, Rituals—which have made this a rare cinematic summer to celebrate.
In Outrageous, Craig Russell plays a character drawn more than a little from his own experience: an unhappy urban
dweller whose ambition it is to make it as a female impersonator. All his life, he says, he had known that he was different, and as a result he put the lid on and kept it on tight. After one night of success at a drag contest, the lid is off and he’s on his way. It’s not that he’s trying to do what nobody has ever done before. The impressions of Bette Midler or Mae West are, after all, the female impersonator’s stock-in-trade. It’s just that Craig Russell does them better, with a sense of witty stylization and huge self pleasure. He so clearly enjoys himself that we end up not just enjoying his work but also enjoying his joy. His need to perform, gives him an energy which he can share, and wants to share, with his audience: he gets it together.
Which is what these Canadian films have been doing this summer: getting it to gether. None of the four exactly breaks new ground. All of them are genre films of a fairly prescribed character. Both Why Shoot The Teacher and Who Has Seen The Wind are depressed-on-the-Prairies and Prairies-in-the-Depression films. Rituals is man-against-the-wilderness. And even Outrageous falls into a category of the small, offbeat comedy-drama (usually built around the theme of identity). But Craig Russell shows us that originality of material is not everything. It is just as important to have something distinctively personal to bring to the material and the power to share that subject with an audience. Refreshingly, all four films keep one eye on the commercial market—and it may be this realization that commercial instincts are not beneath consideration that liberates their energy. Not that commercial considerations are a novelty in Canadian films—indeed, it has been the sole explanation for the soft-core Quebec porn, or TV-style trash like Black Christmas, or the manipulative collected works of David (Rabid) Cronenberg. These new films, however, have achieved commercial consciousness without losing personality or individual character: it is the balance that counts. True, the approach may never produce a breathtakingly original work of acutely personal character like Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, but it also may spare us the arid self-indulgence of films such as Paul Almond’s Act Of The Heart. And the approach does produce—as this summer’s Canadian films show—movies that people want to see.
They have certainly wanted to see Why Shoot The Teacher, the best of these films. This beautiful adaptation of Max Braithwaite’s novel was directed by Silvio Narizzano, a Canadian who has been working successfully in films and TV in Europe. He brings back home with him an astonishing sense of narrative structure—there isn’t a scene in the film which is a fraction too short or too long—and a wry eye for comic detail. The American actor Bud Cort plays, incomparably, a very young teacher who comes to work in a one-room Alberta schoolhouse during the Depression. The farmers are poor (his salaiy is paid in promissory notes), the kids are backward, and the climate is punishing. Solace is rare: a brief flirtation with socialism, and a muted friendship with a forlorn English war bride, Samantha Eggar (fading into a ravishing middle age). This is consummated while they are stranded together during a snowstorm: both in long woolen socks by an iron stove, they read aloud from Noel Coward’s Private Lives— this juxtaposition of a climatic cruelty and imported sophistication is a beautiful emblem of Canadian reality. Narizzano’s film has a generosity of feeling and a kind
humanity. As a bonus James DeFelice’s fine screenplay contains a perfect line of Canadian dialogue, as the wan Eggar is trying to console Cort: “Canada’s a nice country, (pause) In the spring, (pause) Sometimes.”
These sometime qualities of Canadian niceness are well explored, too, in Allan King’s carefully crafted film of W. O. Mitchell’s classic Who Has Seen The Wind. Mitchell’s story about a young boy coming to terms with the final reality of death and the shifting contradictions of life shows both compassion and harshness. Patricia Watson’s script slightly softens this, omitting the rough edges. Narizzano’s version of Braithwaite, it should be noted, also lightened the original, but the film still retained a texture of real conflict, whereas King’s work seems over-protective. Who
Has Seen The Wind certainly works, but it is a teacher’s pet of a film, careful and eager about its effects, anxious that they be noticed. (Eldon Rathburn’s score so underlines each turn of the plot with a processed sensitivity that you’re ready to scream.) Still, the acting is extraordinary, beautifully shaped by King: the remarkable Brian Painchaud as the boy; Gordon Pinsent and Chapelle Jaffe as his parents; Nan Stewart as his grandmother; Patricia Hamilton, Tom Hauff and the radiant Helen Shaver as his teachers and principal; Ed McNamara as Sammy the Prairie Prophet; and even that overripe old ham Jose Ferrer all present portraits notable for their precision and truthfulness.
Peter Carter’s Rituals is not formally drawn from a literary source, but in fact it is more than faintly reminiscent of Deliverance, both James Dickey’s novel and John Boorman’s film. Five doctors are flown into the wilderness of Northern Ontario for a week in nature. To most, the landscape, as unyielding as it is beautiful, would be challenge enough, but these five men are also up against an unknown madman who tracks them, traps them and begins killing them off, one by one. Carter’s film achieves an atmosphere of genuine terror, effectively expressed in Rene' Verzier’s superb outdoor photography, as the unknown somehow develops pattern and personality. Again, the performances, by Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Gary Reineke, Ken James and Robin Gammell, are first-rate. Ian Sutherland’s screenplay develops some sharp turns, and Holbrook is particularly powerful as he decides against abandoning a gravely wounded friend, saying he’ll let the madman kill him but not degrade him. The film disappoints, however, in its final section, when the unknown is made known in a flurry of plot.
Outrageous moves the Canadian survival game back to the city. A large centre like Toronto is a neutral, though frantic, background for the social outsiders depicted here: Robin (Craig Russell) the female impersonator and Liza (Hollis McLaren) the certified schizophrenic who wants to create stories for the crazy people. Richard Benner’s screenplay and direction treat Robin and Liza as sympathetic individuals, vulnerable to the hidden predators of civilization (doctors, nurses, social workers). Robin is aware, too, of the dangers of vulnerability, which is why he admires the women he impersonates: they have steel as well as class. The film is a bit too glib about the social role of the mentally ill, and too fond of whimsical oneliners (“If a caterpillar were afraid of wings, he’d never become a butterfly”): it also turns amateurish all around the outer edges. But to balance that, there is an abundance of wit and compassion at its core, and a dynamic centre in Craig Russell.
What seems most exhilarating about these films is their independence from one another. They form no real trend or movement. They share an independence of purpose and method. (None of them was set up as a foreign co-production, that familiar though dangerous standby of Canadian movie financing. ) Nor are they isolated examples: one could also mention the mild but agreeable Love At First Sight, directed by Rex Bromfield, and, from Vancouver, Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer as further examples. For Canadian films, this is the breakthrough to unselfconscious growth. It may even be the beginning of maturity, who knows? For the moment, it is a good sign of good times: we’re here because we’re here. URJO KAREDA
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